Small volume deformation can produce two types of plastic instability events. The first involves dislocation nucleation as a dislocation by dislocation event and occurs in nano-particles or bulk single crystals deformed by atomic force microscopy or small nanoindenter forces. For the second instability event, this involves larger scale nanocontacts into single crystals or their films wherein multiple dislocations cooperate to form a large displacement excursion or load drop. With dislocation work, surface work, and stored elastic energy, one can account for the energy expended in both single and multiple dislocation events. This leads to an energy balance criterion which can model both the displacement excursion and load drop in either constant load or fixed displacement experiments. Nanoindentation of Fe-3% Si (100) crystals with various oxide film thicknesses supports the proposed approach.